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Sermon illustrations

Suffering

Agony into Glory

They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.

C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Macmillan.

Can Anyone Hear Me?

When I think of the way God allows His servants to suffer, I can’t help but remember the classic story of poor Jack, who was out jogging. As he passed a cliff, he got a little too close to the edge, and suddenly found himself falling. On the way down, he managed to grab a branch, nearly yanking it out of the cliff. When he caught his breath, he realized what a terrible jam he was in. He couldn’t get up, and letting go certainly seemed to be a poor option. He began to scream, “Hello up there! Can anyone hear me?”

In a moment, a voice returned.

“Jack, Can you hear me?”

“Yes, Yes, I can hear you I’m down here.”

“I can see you, Jack, are you alright?”

“Yes, but, who are you, and where are you?”

“I am the Lord Jack, I am everywhere.”

“The Lord? You mean God?”

“That’s me.”

“God, help me, I promise that if you get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person and serve you for the rest of my life.”

“Easy on the promises, Jack. First let’s get you down, then we can discuss those.”

“I’ll do anything, Lord, just tell me what to do, okay?”

“Okay, let go of the branch.”

“What?”

“I said, let go of the branch. Just trust me, let go.”

There was a long pause, as Jack thought of the offer.

In a moment, however, Jack let out a loud yell. “Hello, Hello – is there anybody else up there?!”

Andy Cook

A Christian Approach to Suffering

In the summer of 2012, I knelt over the frail shell of a child, my son, strapped to all manner of medical monitoring equipment. His body failing, his frame thinning, the medical staff at Arkansas Children’s Hospital was at a loss. They had no answers, no direction. He was an anomaly, they said, and they’d need to regroup after making him as comfortable as possible. Though the medical community struggled to sort it all out, my faith community seemed to have every answer.

God would provide, one said, because God would respond to my great faith. God was setting up a miracle, another said. God works all things together for good, I was reminded. Platitude, platitude, platitude. I smiled through all of them, even nodded. Silently I wondered, Did all those words amount to anything, well-meaning though they were? Hunched over my son, all those platitudes haunting, my phone rang.

I looked at the screen, read the name. It was a pastor from a more reformed church in my hometown, and as I answered the phone, I wondered what platitude I might hear. There was a purpose in my son’s suffering? Everything has a Kingdom purpose? After an exchange of greetings, I clenched my jaw. Stiffened. Braced myself.

Through the phone, I heard only three words: “I’m so sorry.” There was a pause, and he told me to holler if I needed anything. He said he’d be praying, and that was that. It was a moment of selfless solidarity, a moment in which this man of the cloth didn’t force-feed me anemic answers or sell me some fix-all version of a bright-and-shiny gospel.

Instead, he did the work of Christ himself; he entered into my suffering. And years later, after a long season of healing (both my son’s and my own), his words served as a reminder of the Christian response to suffering—we enter into it together, share in it together, lament with each other.

I suppose it’s natural, our tendency to try to run from suffering, to somehow try to drag other folks from their own. We Christians use the holy tools at our disposal (particularly, the misinterpretation of Scripture) in an attempt to pave a path around suffering. The problem is that’s not the way of Christ. Christ—God with us—entered into the suffering of humanity. He lamented with those who lamented, extended compassion and healing to the hurting. Ultimately, he took on the existential suffering of all mankind as he endured his own suffering on the cross.

Alia Joy, Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack, Baker Books, 2019.

The Community Held Him

My first recollection of real suffering occurred when I (Rich) was about eight and my uncle had died of leukemia. When Uncle Art finally succumbed, my parents brought me along with two of my sisters to his funeral service at a small church in Alcove, New York.

My sensibilities were limited when it came to grasping the loss of someone dying in their late forties. But when my uncle’s elderly father came into the church I began to get it. His head was freshly bandaged from an early morning fall on February ice. As he made his way to the front of the church he no longer could contain his grief and began to wail loudly over the death of his son. I was startled and frightened.

His open and raw grief made suffering very real. I quickly sensed suffering could overwhelm the soul. I remember how uncomfortable I was. I wanted to get out of the church building. But then something else happened. The church community came forward to where he stood at the casket. They held him, hugged him, prayed with and comforted him.

Soon the silence of a funeral returned. The man who had lost his son was held by a community of faith who suffered with him. It was as if his suffering was distributed to all of us in a hundred pieces.

Taken from The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection by Richard Plass and James Cofield, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.124-125 by Richard Plass and James Cofield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Complexity of Our Tears

One day I was teaching on Capitol Hill and at the end of the afternoon one of my colleagues asked me if I knew a particular woman. I said that I did and he told me that she had been found murdered in her apartment that morning, just a few blocks from where I was standing. I fell back against the wall, screaming inside, NO!

Over the next few days, I found myself rethinking everything that mattered most to me. I still loved my wife, but I thought about her differently—that she was alive and very tender to me. I still loved my children, but I thought about them differently—I wanted to protect them from a murderous world, and was sure that in the end I couldn’t.

I still loved my work, but I thought about it differently—would I be able to teach my students to honestly step into the sordidness of the city and world, knowing that they too might suffer? What I wasn’t sure about was God. Those were dark days for me, as it seemed that I had now seen enough to know that what I had believed about faith and hope and love was not sustainable.

This was one too many stories of horrible sorrow. How could it all still be true in the face of a friend being stabbed to death? And I began to wonder, Is there something that is more true than what I have believed? Is there an account of the universe that makes more sense of griefs like this? We gathered together to mourn our friend’s death, and we cried and cried. While the days are a blur in some ways, I still remember wondering about God and the world, perplexed as to what could be honestly believed…

As the days passed after my friend’s murder, I entered again into the tears of God. It mattered, supremely, that Jesus wept, tearful about our sorrows, weeping with those who wept, and that he groaned severely, being angry at the distortion of life that death is. Years have come and gone since those weeks of great sadness and there have been other days of tragedy, as there will be in the days to come. But I am sure now that I need John 11 to be in the Bible. I need for God to have tears, even, and especially, complex tears, because some days I do too.

Taken from Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good  by Steven Garber, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.11-12. Steven Garber. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Did God Do This?

I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Orlando, Florida, having a conversation with my friend K, from Germany. Her world-class young athlete friend was recently paralyzed as a result of an on-camera stunt that went horribly wrong. K was distraught. She dried her eyes and said, “I struggle believing this is all part of God’s wonderful plan.” So do I! Do we actually believe we honor God by declaring god the author of all this mess in the name of Sovereignty and Omnipotent control?”

W.P. Young, Lies We Believe about God, Atria Books.

God should Resign if…

Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to explain suffering by saying God too is pained by death but cannot do anything about it. (Elie Wiesel once said in response to Kushner, “If that’s who God is, he should resign and let someone competent take over.”

John Ortberg, Faith and Doubt.

Existential Brokenheartedness

In this short excerpt, pastor and author Austin Fischer describes a surprising dynamic that sometimes occurs in the life of a Christian: believing so strongly in a loving God that one cannot fathom the depths of the world’s suffering, and thus, can lead to a loss of faith:

Christianity sows seeds of celestial charity in our hearts, and those seeds can mutate into an existential brokenheartedness on behalf of the suffering world. The radiance of divine love can morph into a tumor that destroys faith. Christian faith creates a love so fierce that it can accidently subvert faith in the name of love in the face of savage evil.

In other words, it is often those with deep faith, firmly grounded in the love of God, who find their faith languishing in the shadows when faced with creation’s ceaseless pain: “The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering of the world.

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Great Big World Out There

The great temptation of suffering is to let your pain become the whole world and to start believing that all that ever was, is and will be, is your private hell.  God’s frontal assault on Job’s egotism really liberates him from the notion that his suffering is the whole world.  It tells him that there is a great big world out there, a world that is infinitely greater than his suffering.

Taken from Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent by Ben Patterson Copyright (c) 1989 by Ben Patterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

John Wesley’s covenant prayer demonstrates a level of sacrifice and devotion to Jesus that has been rarely matched. How many of us have asked for suffering, in order to experience the humility and the poverty of spirit that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This prayer forces us to ask how committed we are to God’s will in our lives. Are we willing to suffer for Christ? Are we willing to submit other desires, goals, achievements to the larger purpose of Christ transforming us?:

I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

The Impact of a Heart Attack

In Bob Benson’s book “See You at the House” he recounts the story of a friend who had a heart attack. At first it didn’t seem like the man would live, but eventually he would recover, Months later, Bob asked him:

“Well, how did you like your heart attack?”

“It scared me to death, almost.”

“Would you do it again?”

“No!”

“Would you recommend it?”

“Definitely Not.”

“Does your life mean more to you now than it did before.”

“Well, yes.”

“You and Nell have always had a beautiful marriage, but are you closer now than ever?”

“Yes.”

“How about that new granddaughter?”

“Yes. Did I show you her picture?”

“Do you have a new compassion for people-a deeper understanding and sympathy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know the Lord in a deeper, richer fellowship than you had ever realized could be possible?”

“Yes.”

“…how’d you like your heart attack?

Bob Benson, See You at the House.

Growth Through Suffering: Malcom Muggeridge’s Reflections on Life

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.

In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo . . . the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the Cross signifies. And it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.

Malcolm Muggeridge, A Twentieth Century Testimony, Thomas Nelson.

My Best Medicine

It is often said that people die as they lived. This was certainly true of the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. As Luther came close to the end of his life, he suffered from severe headaches which left him stuck in bed. At one point, he was offered some medication to ease his pain. He declined and said, “My best prescription for head and heart is that God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Platitudes not Necessary

Writer Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has distilled her pain and tragedy in a book called The Bereaved Parent. When her young son died during an operation to correct a congenital heart malfunction, her clergyman took her aside and said, “I know that this is a painful time for you. But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never sends us more of a burden than we can bear. God only let this happen to you because He knows that you are strong enough to handle it.” She looked at the pastor and drew the logical conclusion. “So,” she said, “if only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive?”

Every pastor and mature Christian learns, sooner or later, that there are times when the best thing we can do for one another is simply to cry together.

Andy Cook

Suffering & Missions

In the United States and most other highly developed and industrialized nations that have been exporters of Christ’s gospel, it is generally accepted that the avoidance of suffering is a respected primary objective in life. But in relation to missionary efforts, our lack of suffering is a great obstacle to our effectiveness in communicating Christ’s plan for hurting people in third-and fourth-world countries. Suffering people who think we never suffer are understandably cynical about our ability to understand them and care for their physical, emotional, and spiritual hurts.

Taken from Suffering & The Sovereignty of God by Stephen F. Saint, edited by John Piper & Justin Taylor © 2006, p.112. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Suffering as Ministry Training

God’s idea of ministry training is a broken vessel. His idea of spiritual preparation is suffering, which includes rejection. Here is the biblical recipe for ministry preparation—a recipe that’s glaringly absent from the pages of most ministry training manuals today:

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. Criticism and rejection are God’s tools for liberating His servants from human control and the desire to please men. To make you a useful vessel in His hands—“fit for the Master’s use”—God will sovereignly bring rejection into your life. Jacob is not alone in encountering an angel who will break his natural strength and leave him with a limp.

Frank Viola, God’s Favorite Place on Earth.

Suffering is Evidence of God’s Presence

Suffering is not evidence of God’s absence, but of God’s presence, and it is in our experience of being broken that God does his surest and most characteristic salvation work.

There is a way to accept, embrace, and deal with suffering that results in a better life, not a worse one, and more of the experience of God, not less.

God is working out his salvation in our lives the way he has always worked it out—at the place of brokenness, at the cross of Jesus, and at the very place where we take up our cross.

Eugene H. Peterson, adapted from Foreword of Alan E. Nelson, Embracing Brokenness: How God Refines Us Through Life’s Disappointments (NavPress, 2002)

Suffering Offers an Invitation

Suffering has no answers. But it does carry an invitation. It invites us into mystery. It invites us to surrender without explanation to something we cannot understand. In the dark helplessness of our suffering something happens within ourselves and in the community. The mystery of suffering proves to be a profound pathway into a participatory experience with God!

Taken from The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection by Richard Plass and James Cofield, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.125 by Richard Plass and James Cofield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Ted Turner Losing His Religion

Ted Turner. He is 71 years old (written in 2014), and still in the news. With a net worth estimated around $2.3 billion, Turner has made an impact on cable television, news reporting, and major league baseball. He has given $1 billion to United Nations causes, and was once married to Jane Fonda. Through it all, Turner was never boring. Outspoken at every turn, Turner’s few missteps have included harsh statements about Christianity.

“Christianity is a religion for losers,” he said in 1990. On another occasion, he joked that the Pope should step on a land mine. He once asked some of his CNN employees who were wearing ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?” Turner even blamed his divorce from Fonda on her decision to become a practicing Christian.

Interestingly, Turner grew up in a Christian Home, and at 17, planned on being a missionary! “I was very religious when I was young,” Turner told Michael Eisner. “I was a born-again Christian. In fact, I was born again seven times including once by Billy Graham. I mean, I know it inside and out.”

But Turner lost his faith when he watched his sister die from a rare form of lupus, at the age of 20. For five years, turner said, “I prayed 30 minutes every day for God to save her, and he didn’t. A kind and loving God wouldn’t let my sister suffer so much. I said, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you.'” (Sources: “Conversations with Michael Eisner,” CNBC.com, Fortune magazine article, May 26, 2003.)

Andy Cook

The World’s Finale

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

What the Incarnation Means

The incarnation means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall . . . to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death—he has nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. . . . He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of human experience—from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. . . . He was born in poverty and . . . suffered infinite pain—all for us—and thought it well worth his while.

Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in Creed or Chaos? And Other Essays in Popular Theology, Hodder and Stoughton.

Why I Share

Renowned author Henri Nouwen used the book In Memoriam to tell the story of his mother’s death and his consuming grief. Somebody asked Nouwen, “Why do you do this? Why are you so public about your personal problems?” Nouwen replied, “I always try to turn my personal struggles into something helpful for others.

J. Howard Olds, in Ministry Matters, August 1st, 2008.

See also Illustrations on Grief, Healing, IllnessLossMedicinePain 

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Suffering. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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